This week, Pastor J.D. continues our Ask Me Anything series based on his new book, Essential Christianity. The third question is, “If God is real, why doesn’t everybody believe in him?”
Like we talked about in our last episode, there is abundant evidence for the existence of God. So then, why doesn’t everyone believe in him?
The truth, Paul says, is that we suppress it because we think we want a world, a life, without God. This means that the question, “Is there even a God?” is one that we answer more with our hearts than our heads. The problem is not that the evidence is not there; it’s that our hearts don’t want to see it.
The philosopher William James, who many regard as a forerunner to 20th-century postmodernism, said that in determining what we believe, more important than evidence is (to use the title of his most famous lecture) “The Will to Believe.” What we believe, James explained, is less determined by the evidence itself than by what we want to believe. Postmodern philosophy patted itself on the back for this great discovery. And it was a great discovery.
But Paul got there two millennia earlier: “For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21). Or Rom. 1:18… we suppress the truth with unrighteousness.
In other words, our heads are controlled by our hearts. It wasn’t that we couldn’t figure out the truth about God; we didn’t want to figure it out because we didn’t really want to know it. The flaw was not in the evidence but in the hearts considering that evidence.
So in a sense, we know, but we don’t know, because we don’t want to know. We suppress the truth that is evident to us because we don’t want it to be true.
- We want to be the center of our story, making the rules…
- We’re the point. Our comfort is the priority. We know best. Our way is better. Our will is supreme.
Humanity’s suppression of truth, Paul explains, manifests itself in two forms: an irreligious form of suppression and a religious one.
Irreligious suppression: Atheism (or agnosticism)
Listen, I’m not saying there are not people genuinely convinced that they are atheists. I’m saying that according to Romans 1 that atheism is driven by a subconscious desire not to know. We know but we don’t know because we don’t want to know.
- Everybody in their heart knows the truth, but we don’t want to admit it to ourselves so some of us convinced ourselves there is no God. We don’t like the thought of an all-powerful, ruling God, so we suppress the truth.
- Which is why a lot of the great atheist-intellects of the last 100 years who have become Christians—people like T.S. Elliot, W.H. Auden, C.E.M. Joad, C.S. Lewis, A. N. Wilson (by the way, ever notice all the really smart people go by their initials)—have all said, “What brought me to faith was not some new argument or evidence. I just admitted to myself that I always knew there was a God.”
- When I am sharing Christ with someone, I often will ask, “If you come to see these things are true, are you willing to change your life in response? “Because a willingness to follow the truth is a prerequisite to knowing the truth.”
Religious suppression: Idolatry
When we suppress the truth of who God is through religion, we change the object of our worship into something we can control.
The false gods humanity has worshipped all have one thing in common—they exist to serve us. We worshipped, but our main question was how to get God into orbit around our lives. But the most basic truth of creation is that we were created for God and his glory—he is at the center. But we wanted a God who would serve us, be our divine butler, and so we reimagined God in that form.
Anthropologists have noted that all peoples in all place worship… even if you’re not religious. We can no more turn off worship by not being religious than we could turn off our sex drive by not getting married.
When you say, “What about those that have never heard?” the truth is that everybody’s heard. God showed it to us and revealed it in us. But we suppress that knowledge of an all-ruling, all-sovereign God because we don’t want it to be true. And for that reason we all stand condemned.
So our denial of God’s existence, according to Paul, is not the faulty conclusion of a genuinely confused mind but the subconscious desire of a heart that is resistant to God. Denial is not the only fruit, however. Some of us willingly acknowledge God’s existence, but we then distort him into “images” that cater to our sinful hearts. This is Paul’s explanation for the multiplicity of religions in the world. We took glory from the real God and assigned it to new versions of him that we preferred over him. Furthermore, we manifest our resistance to God’s glory through disobedience—we do what we want instead of what God wants even when we know what he wants. We’ll get into that more in the next chapter.
Denial, distortion, and disobedience: three bad fruits of a heart that is resistant to God’s power, glory, and authority.
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